We are a society that does not give itself permission to love daughters.
We have family and social systems that are dismissive of our feelings, that are designed to break the natural bonds of support between people. They damage and hurt us as individuals; yet we cling to hierarchies and to the status quo, like a frayed security blanket.
In the last column, I wrote about taking on a stranger who had been rude to my children and me (“Do girls make you uncomfortable?”, 28 April). It was a random encounter. A woman we were meeting for the first time saw a family with three daughters and assumed that the only reason we would have crossed the golden threshold of “hum do, hamare do (two children per couple)” is to have a son. Out of the blue, in front of the children, she said to me, “You had three children because you wanted to have a son.”
Our children, all of them under 10 years, were right there listening to her. They watched me react, first with hesitation and then a sureness born out of shock.
Self-sufficient: Teach your children to deal with meanness and cruelty rather than try and protect them from it at all times. Photo: Thinkstock
My problem with her was not that she had judged me so bluntly. After all, it is a common desperation in India to crave for a son. I could have been in her place and thought the same thing.
What was totally unacceptable to me was how rude and dismissive she had been of the children. Talking about little children in front of them as if they are deaf, daft and worthless is another great tradition of our culture. We behave as if children don’t grasp the world around them, as if their feelings don’t matter.
I stepped away with the woman and confronted her. My own anger had crossed a boundary that made my words come out calm and clear.
In the scheme of things, it was a small incident. Yet I shared it and something about it resonated with those who read it. Three weeks later, I am still receiving responses in my mailbox.
Much of the email is from parents of daughters. That is where I got the first line of this column. As a society, we deny parents the permission to be in love with their daughters. We refuse to validate how they feel. A friend of mine recently became a father of two daughters.
“I am perfectly happy,” he said to me, “yet I have this nagging feeling as if I have failed an important exam. Others are thrusting disappointment on me.”
People want to stand on rooftops and declare, “I love my children, whatever their gender or abilities may be.” I can tell this from the resounding applause I receive when I do that. And you know what? I was full of self-doubt too on my way to the roof. I started raising my voice only because it was drowning in the din. I couldn’t hear myself any more.
Mothers of sons have written in. They get to hear that their lives are incomplete without daughters. Apparently sons cannot have emotional bonds with parents the way daughters have. Yet every parent knows differently.
Why do we limit ourselves so radically? Are we scared of the power of love and intimacy? As a society, we seem to have bottled up our natural feelings in jars and left them to pickle in the sun.
Children are not just financial or emotional transactions, yet we constantly define them as such. Who will take care of us later? How will we maximize returns on the investment we are making?
Individually we are all reasonable voices of sanity and yet collectively we pull each other down with our ruthless judgements. We despair about how some things never change, yet the only power each of us has is to change ourselves. We don’t have to be helpless victims. We can be powerful. We are powerful. We must challenge the language of this discourse.
Among the many responses was one from a daughter. Anubha Yadav is one of four sisters and she shared stories of how they learnt to laugh, be angry and play games as they dealt with a million silences and unwanted reactions in their growing-up years.
“Children are bright, Natasha,” she writes. “They will learn to make fun of and take on the people who challenge them. Because they are lucky to be born to you.”
I didn’t know I was looking for it, but this is the reassurance I needed. I don’t have to protect my children from meanness and cruelty. I have to show them how to deal with it. That’s how we will change the world around us.
We are and will always remain our children’s first, most influential, role models. Let the only luck they will ever need be the luck of having YOU as their parents.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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